Seat Mii roadtest on a mountain track

Mountain track road test of Seat Mii 1.0 automatic in Crete.

The obvious question is why an automatic? As a younger man, I extolled the virtues of control and the expression of skill that comes with driving a manual car (stick, for my American friends). Now as my life falls into the sere, I find myself heartily sick of changing gears. I’ll take a quiet life, as your man Thom whined.

In this case my thoughts were more practical. I figured driving on the wrong side of the road was challenging enough without right-hand gear changes to tax my malco-ordination. The bus to Heraklion with which I had a very low-speed altercation can attest to the wisdom of this, and also paying for the excess (deductible) waiver.


This is what happens when the bus you are overtaking decides to move away from the bus stop without looking

The interior is surprisingly roomy and the boot is functional if you buy groceries like you’re on a diet. The pint-sized engine is actually OK for highway cruising and quite quiet at Cretan highway speeds (plus a bit). Unless there is a headwind, in which case get a hotel room and wait for the weather to change because you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

The things you can’t get away from are the ECU and gearbox, and given the component sharing across VAG the poxy things probably infect all Skoda and VW small cars.

Picture the scene: you’re on a twisty, unsurfaced mountain road. It has a spiky, uneven rocky top greased with dust and gravel. You’ve just walked a kilometre back along a gorge from the lovely secluded Agio Farago beach and you need to go up over the mountain to sanctuary at the delightful Monastery Odigitrias.

The first thing the guide books don’t tell you is that this road is only for 4x4s and rental cars. It’s also only one and a half micro cars wide, so if something is coming the other way, one of you has a decision to make.

mountain road.jpg

This road runs at 90 degrees to the one we took, but you get the idea.

So, you’re on an upslope, steep drop to one side, car breaker rain channels to the other, a sequence of blind hairpin turns ahead. The powertrain is too puny to creep. You give the Mii a bootfull and wait. The kick down gear change is ponderous as the engine, out of its depth like a reception teacher asked to cover the advanced calculus class, hyperventilates.

Sometime later it accelerates, if you’ve planned it right this is before you roll down the road to a comedic but nonetheless fatal end.

You keep your foot in until the last moment. The ultra-light steering is not a problem because the whole car is rattling with road feel and the suspension surrendered a long time ago. You know better than to death grip the wheel, you keep your thumbs clear and your hands soft. It’s a low grip surface, the grim reaper lurking amid the oleanders to one side, you turn the wheel and come off the gas.

Roller skate wheels skitter over the terrain, you’re sideways in a hairpin – that’s good and bad: you’re now pointing the right way but running out of momentum. Another bootfull and… nothing.

Seconds pass, you’re about to stop and roll off the road. “Oh,” says the Mii’s addled brain. “When you stabbed the gas pedal through the fireguard into the engine bay, you wanted me to accelerate. Hold on while I tell the gearbox.”

Certain death in a tin can through the rearview mirror. You’ll be goat food. Eventually, something mechanical happens. The Mii drops a cog. The engine wheezes, supplementing the dregs of forward impetus to crawl up the short straight to do it all again.

Over and over again. Never has a Muslim been so happy to see a monastery.

Monastery Odigitrias.jpg

Moni Odigitrias. See the church, buy the honey, use the toilet.

On the plus side, should you find yourself inadvertently going up a goat track instead of the actual road (they’re easily mixed up) the turning circle is tiny and a seven-point turn will bring you back to the right path.

Pro-tip: when you have edged to the limit of the road remember to put the car in reverse before you hit the gas again. Fortunately, the engine response is slow enough that I managed to stand on the brakes before plunging down the mountain.

Honestly, I would rather have been in Brooke, my twenty-year-old Renault Laguna. She’s down on power from her glory days, but I know every beat of her faithful heart and so can judge every gear change by telepathy. Better still would be the Monkey Car – my wife’s even older Citroen Saxo (still in the family). No one does fun small cars as well as the French and I have booted that Saxo through Snake Pass, so I know what a hoot it is to drive on twisty roads.

The locations at either end are highly recommended. The drive – well at least you now know what the guidebooks won’t tell you, and which car not to do it in.


Find out more about my writing here.


Free advice on self-publishing for free

Let’s assume you have already decided to go it alone. Maybe you have a pile of rejections threatening to teeter over and bury you, or maybe you are simply unwilling to invest the stamps and months required to contact agents and publishers. Or perhaps like me you just have a problem with authority figures.

I’ve had some good experiences with my publishing experiments with Amazon, so I stuck with them for my first “serious” effort. I was particularly intrigued by CreateSpace which is an Amazon drone that offers a print on demand service. Previously if you wanted to see yourself in actual print you’d be in the seedy realms of vanity publishing, drowning the world in words no one else would put any money into. This is different, you can waft through the whole process without spending a penny, and your mum can still order an actual print copy of your book.

Second assumption, you have a document and you have gathered at least four well-wishers together to proof read it. Twice each preferably, which may cost you goodwill, but trust me and invest it now. I said you would not have to spend money, but that is not the only thing of worth. I was lucky because a mixture of family, and friends who are writers and reviewers themselves helped me out. That gave a blend of unfettered plot advice, as well and invaluable grammar tweaks.

By now you have noticed I like long sentences, this is an instinct which needs reigning in.

Make sure you proof read yourself again before you hit the go button. I’ve read books with big publishing houses behind them that are riddled with errors and that winds me up no end.

Set up your project in CreateSpace first, before you dive into Amazon, they’ll Kindlise the whole thing for you (which you will then have to dump, but bear with me). Go for all the free stuff, and avoid the paid stuff, it all looks hideously expensive anyway.

You’ll get an email from them offering their extensive services, and as soon as you tell them you are going solo they will leave you alone.

I took all the shortcuts on offer at this stage, so I picked up their 6×9 Word template and pasted all my text into it. It is a limited template, and it went horribly wrong on the table of contents, which I had to do over myself, but as long as you set your headings up as a style you’re OK using Word for this bit. The print version won’t hyperlink anyway.

Check it again. Many years in business have taught me that people make mistakes. That is not a good thing or a bad thing, it is just a thing that is true.

To be honest for the text part that is about it, you load it all up, CS check it, but if you used their template it should all work swimmingly. The tricky part is designing your cover.

The CS cover creator is limited and clunky, but it will do an acceptable job, and it is free. There may be other tools on the web, but I stuck with CS because they work out spine widths for you. I photoshopped ten different cover designs and tested them on my friends before settling on one. The images were ones I had photographed myself so there were no copyright issues. If you pluck something from the ether then be sure to check you have permission to use it.

If you’re interested the album of covers I played with are on fbook:

The picture went into their cover creator and then I had to dick around with the title and cover text to get something half decent. I’m not terribly happy with it, but it looks OK. My real problem was with the back cover. The creator tries to be helpful and resizes text to fit pre-positioned boxes for the blurb and about the author section. You can delete these if you want, but I found it maddening that I didn’t have font size options. It also slightly indents the first lines which is a really antiquated way of presenting text. I think it is possible to use some html gubbins to make this more flexible, but I last touched that in the days of Netscape.

Once you’re happy with everything, it gets picked up in the process flow, and you’re on your way. One tip: if you make changes you have to go through every step of the cover creator before it will let you save it . Don’t forget to save your changes. Surprisingly easy to do [whistles nonchalantly].

CS will review it for printability, which takes a few hours and then you get your first money spending choice. Do you order physical proofs, or make do with the pdf version? If you are outside the US the postage is extortionate, unless you are willing to wait two months for them to arrive. I wasn’t, and I needed to see and feel the book, so I opened my wallet here. The point is you don’t have to. If you are convinced by the quality of your proofing the pdf may be OK. I got lucky, when I put the picture of the proof copies on fbook one of my friends found a typo on the back cover, which was the only part of the text that was not proofed by anyone but me.

Be particularly careful to look for odd line spacing and lines with just a space and then carriage return on them, instead of just the return. Sometimes these print as a little box. You will have to go through your text and clear all of them out (I did a find and replace on <space>^p with just ^p).

I was publishing a set of short stories, and to be fair the first version was a bit thin at 18k words, but fortunately I had been working on another and so after the proofs arrived I could boost the whole thing by another 8k words. 26k words take up 82 pages. It is still a pretty slim volume but a little more substantial in the hand.

CS will run their checks again after you have made your edits. You can then go through and get the volume passed through to your Amazon account to be loaded as a Kindle volume. Don’t use the version CS make for you as the contents page on mine was nasty, and it didn’t hyperlink.

I use Sigil for ebooks, but there are plenty of free ebook tools around. I like Sigil because it checks the coding for you as it goes along, and fills in all the html gumph that you need for you. You can basically use it as a limited word processor and let it do the rest for you.

Amazon also provide a free Kindle previewer, so once you have converted your book into an epub document you can fire it into their previewer and see how it will look on a Kindle. Epub also works if you are going via Lulu to get a listing on the iBookstore and B&N.

Sigil is pretty intuitive, you just need to set up a new html file inside your project for every section, and then assign a meta tag to it (basically a label, is it the copyright page, or the cover, or the acknowledgements page). It uses the same heading styles approach as word processors, and you can use this to produce your table of contents (which you need to tag as the contents).

Load the epub into the Kindle management pages, and then give it 12 hours to be checked and passed.

That’s it, you’re live, your customers can order a print copy or an electronic copy, so go ahead and start marketing.

Hardcopy from the createspace estore:
Kindle US:
Kindle UK:
Kindle Canada:
Kindle India:


I used CreateSpace again for my second book. I did research Smashwords, but their process seemed to lack the simplicity of CS. A word of warning – this time I went for the expert set up and a 5×8 book size. In the expert mode of CS you have to upload a print ready pdf file, not just the formatted word file. My rather clunky pdf editor couldn’t handle the conversion of a 5×8 format book, so I had to scratch the project in CS and start over, this time choosing the guided option. Not a major issue, but a bit annoying.

The cover sizing guide is good, and I used it to make my own cover entirely in photoshop this time round. It looks quite smart if I do say so myself!